Based in North Kingstown, RI
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Copyright and Usage Rights

polar square designs copyright and usage rights

Copyright and Usage Rights

A huge part of my job as a photographer is educating my clients. After all, it’s not their responsibility to know everything about photography before hiring me, but it’s my responsibility to make sure everything is totally clear in terms of what the service includes. One question I get very often is “do I get the copyrights of these files when I pay for them?” Copyright is a tricky thing, and the difference between copyright and usage rights is huge. Make sure you know what you are paying for, and what that actually means!

Copyright means the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.

What does that break down to? Basically, you own the image. You own the file, you can use the image however you want to, you can sell the image to anyone, you can edit the image, have it published in a book, used as a CD cover (do people even make CD’s anymore??), and essentially do anything to it and with it that you please. As a result, the photographer no longer owns the image, nor can the photographer sell/share/use it in advertising. Some clients purchase copyright to prevent the photographer from using their images. Copyright is a very expensive thing to purchase, often thousands of dollars per image. More info is here.

Usage rights, sometimes known as licenses, are essentially permissions, including printing permissions, sharing permissions, maybe the client wants to use the image on packaging for a product, or as product imagery for their online store. Usage rights might be included in the fee your photographer charged when you hired him or her, or it might be separately listed as a line item.

The average consumer client does not need copyright. If they purchase or receive digital files, not just prints, then they probably need permission to share the images online with their family and friends, and maybe they’d also like permission to print those images themselves. Not all photographers include these specific permissions and I cannot stress how important it is to GET A CONTRACT and get everything IN WRITING. I personally include sharing permissions and printing permissions in the sale of any digital files, and all of that is outlined in the contract. In my contract it also specifies that I retain copyright by default.

Why is this important?

Well, say you hire a photographer to photograph your business’s location, employees and products and before the shoot, the photographer says “what do you want to do with these images?” The company answers “well, we want to share them on Facebook in a few ad campaigns”, so the photographer puts together licensing fees for that specific usage, and the photos turn out great. So great, in fact, that the company decides to print a bunch of white papers about their services, and distributes the white papers nationally at a huge conference. Then they decide to redo their website, and give the images to the web designer to use. This is so fantastic for the company, except they did not have copyright and usage rights, or pay for those extra usages. They are in breach of their contract with the photographer and are about to receive a cease and desist letter from a lawyer, and a big bill. You know that saying “ask for forgiveness later”? Yeah, that doesn’t apply to copyright issues. Don’t use images in any way you don’t have specific permission to use them. You are asking for a major legal headache, and copyright law is not an easy one to mess with, meaning the photographer will almost always win that battle.

Another hypothetical situation, which is all too common: An engaged couple hires a photographer to photograph their wedding. They sign a contract – in the contract is specific language about what is included, namely:

  • permission to share the images on social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc)
  • permission to print the images anywhere they choose

BUT, the contract also states that other vendors must contact me for any photos they want to use. But say a bit of time goes by, and the happy couple forgets about that vendor clause in the contract. The venue contacts them and says “oh my gosh, we just loved your wedding! Can you share any photos with us that we can show to other brides and grooms?” and the happy couple says “oh yes! here they are!”

Then, a few weeks later, the venue has a table at a wedding show, and they printed some huge beautiful banners with these fantastic images on them, images that they do not have permission to use  in advertising. Now the wedding clients are in breach of their contract, and the venue is going to get a cease and desist letter and a big fat invoice from the photographer. Not a good situation for anyone involved. What the couple should have done is refer the venue representative back to the photographer so they can hash out any copyright and usage rights permissions/fees.

Another situation I run into constantly: editing. If you hire a photographer and do not purchase copyright of the images, you cannot edit the images. This includes:

  • filters
  • cropping
  • effects
  • stylizing
  • changing the colours

Oh man, I run into this constantly. Social media makes it sooo easy to edit images; just slap some horrible Instagram filter on there and bam! everyone is orange, and suddenly you’ve committed copyright infringement. My contract does specifically mention editing as not allowed, and in the past when I have discovered that a client edited the image, it’s often a case of them being so used to selecting a fun filter for everything that they just did it without thinking. A polite reminder usually refreshes their memory, and the edited image gets deleted.

How do you avoid any issues with copyright and usage rights?

Bottom line: If you are a commercial business hiring a photographer for commercial imagery, be honest with the photographer about how you plan on using the images. If you are a portrait or wedding client hiring a photographer for portraits or wedding photography, read your contract, ask questions, and respect the rules outlined in your contract. And no matter who you are, if you have questions about copyright and usage rights, simply ask them; don’t assume anything. I’m happy to answer questions as they pertain to my business – contact me here.

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